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Unfinished Masterpiece: Completing Mozart’s Requiem

CAS AU Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

AU Symphony Orchestra performance by Sonia Frederickson, April 2010.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Requiem Mass is one of the most infamous, mysterious, and scholarly controversial musical masterpieces in history. Since Mozart passed away before finishing the piece, numerous composers have attempted to complete it. Despite the mystery—and the fact that it remains unfinished—the Requiem continues to be one of the most revered pieces of all classical music.

You will be able to hear a completion of the piece that is based on brand new scholarship about Mozart’s life on November 19, 20, and 21 in the Abramson Family Recital Hall. AU Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform two pieces: Johannes Brahms’s Schicksalslied, Op. 54 and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous Requiem Mass in D Minor, K 626 in a completion by Harvard musicologist Daniel Levin. Friday and Saturday’s performances will be at 8 p.m., while Sunday’s will be at 3 p.m. 

Brahms composed Schicksalslied in the late 19th century, several years after the death of his mother, with whom he was very close, according to symphony conductor Jesus Manuel Berard. While grieving, Brahms came across a poem by German poet Friedrich Hölderlin that touched on the ideas of immortality and death. 

The poem, which inspired Brahms to compose the piece, has two parts: the first is a “contemplation on the blissful existence of the departed souls in Elysium, the brightest part of heaven,” says Berard, while the second contemplates humans’ mortal, uncertain existence, full of questions of fate and death.

Brahms divides his work into three parts. The first is bright, with “upward, spiraling lines that represent the transmigration of souls and looking up into the inner reaches of heaven,” says Berard. The second part takes on a much darker tone. The piece then finishes up with a return to the brighter style of the opening: a conclusion that Brahms made because he thought it “inappropriate” to end the piece so somberly and because it gives the piece a sense of closure, according to Berard. 

“The second part is really agitated and unsettled,” says Berard. “It’s that part where we feel like our souls are cast back and forth, like the waters striking cliffs.” 

The Requiem—which played a major role in the film and play Amadeus—will be performed in Levin’s version published in 1995. When Mozart passed away before completing the Requiem, his wife, Constanze, asked several of Amadeus’s students and associates to attempt to complete the piece. The version that is most traditionally played is the completion by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr. 

Chorus conductor Daniel Abraham says that the Levin version is unique. 

“Levin’s edition is, in a way, a new piece of scholarship that adds to our understanding of the Mozart Requiem in a different way,” says Abraham. “It’s not a complete gutting of the traditional completion by Süssmayr, but rather adds a new layer of scholarly consideration.” 

Not only does the Levin version examine issues of style, but also it builds on new resources, such as the scraps of paper traded between Süssmayr and Constanze and some previously undiscovered sketches from Amadeus himself. Levin corrected some of the “student-level errors” that Süssmayr made, according to Abraham. He also “thinned out” the instrumentation in areas when the soloists previously had difficulty standing out against the rest of the orchestra. 

The most significant change that Levin made, however, was the addition of a long fugue—a musical composition in which one or a couple themes are imitated or repeated by voices that chime in at different times and continuously interweave. In the Süssmayr version, the piece ends with two chords of the word “amen.” The Levin version includes an extended Mozart-style fugue on the word “amen”: a change based on one of the sketches of paper discovered in the mid-1950s. 

Berard and Abraham decided to pair the two pieces together because their “two styles, while different, complement each other well,” Abraham says. 

“We thought they were an exquisite pairing in terms of a really well-known Requiem mass in a different version than most people are used to, along with a really meaty, interesting, beautifully-romantic piece by Brahms,” he says. 

Tickets are $10. For more information, visit http://www.american.edu/cas/calendar/?id=2548939.